The recent resurgence of Intelligent Systems’ Fire Emblem series is one of the most surprising and impressive success stories to come out of gaming within the past decade. The series was on the verge of cancellation by Nintendo when Fire Emblem Awakening released to strong critical and commercial success, saving the franchise. The series has since risen to become one of Nintendo’s marquee franchises, arguably standing toe-to-toe with the likes of Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. The revitilization of Fire Emblem in a global market is certainely a notable achievement and a deserved one, but it does raise one significant question. What is the future of Intelligent Systems’ other long-running turn-based tactical RPG series, Advance Wars?
A Brief History
Although not technically a subsidiary, Intelligent Systems has a long history with Nintendo, assisting in the development of such games as Mario Bros., Metroid, and the WarioWare series. The company is also well-known as the developer of all games in the Paper Mario RPG series, for better or for worse. Moving beyond spin-offs of Nintendo IP, two long-running original series by Intelligent Systems date back all the way to the first few years of the company’s inception.
The late-1980s and early-1990s saw Intelligent Systems release two long-running original franchises on the Family Computer, exclusively in Japan. Famicom Wars was released in 1988. The first game in the Wars series, Famicom Wars is a turn-based, tactical, military war-simulation video game in which players make choices for one of two battling nations in combat. This game spawned numerous sequels, each expanding on the tactical war-simulation of the original, with each sequel named after the console on which it appeared (Super Famicom Wars, Game Boy Wars, etc.). Despite critical and commercial success, the series did not reach western markets until the Game Boy Advance release, Advance Wars in 2001, for fear of the series being overly-complicated for western audiences. Advance Wars simplified many of the series’ systems to make it easier to grasp by new players and it was a surprise success.
Many developmental parallels can be drawn between the Wars series and the Fire Emblem series. Both are turn-based, tactical video games designed by Intelligent Systems that remained Japan-exclusive until their Game Boy Advance releases. Fire Emblem began with 1990’s Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light on the Famicom and, similar to Famicom Wars, featured turn-based, tactical gameplay but, dissimilar to Famicom Wars’ military aesthetic, Fire Emblem took a more mythical, medieval approach, with units fighting with swords and magic rather than guns and tanks.
Six successful sequels followed before the series finally arrived in the west, under the simple title Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance in late 2003. This localization was prompted by the recent success of Advance Wars, as well as newfound interest in the series prompted by the inclusion of two popular Fire Emblem characters, Marth and Roy, in Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube.
Fire Emblem and the Wars series had very similar beginnings, with Wars actually preceding Fire Emblem in its inception and western expansion. However, if we fast forward to the present day, Fire Emblem is an incredibly relevant, thriving game series for Nintendo, while the Wars series has gone over ten years without a new entry. Much of this disparity can be credited to one single game: Fire Emblem Awakening.
Fire Emblem and Advance Wars continued to enjoy a steady stream of new releases throughout the 2000s on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo Gamecube, and Nintendo DS, though they both remained relatively niche franchises and were experiencing some degree of stagnation, in terms of gameplay mechanics. Due to the lack of mainstream success, Nintendo gave Intelligent Systems one final chance to create a successful Fire Emblem game as their first Nintendo 3DS RPG.
That game, as we now know, became Fire Emblem Awakening, a culmination of the series that added now-mainstay series elements like character relationships and more dynamic camera angles during battle. These new features, in addition to adjustable difficulty settings, catapulted the Fire Emblem series to the mainstream and created a new generation of hardcore fans. Since Awakening, the Fire Emblem series has seen three new core entries, as well as a highly successful mobile game, while the Wars series has remained only a nostalgic remembrance, its memory only living on through spiritual successors like Wargroove, created by fans of the series.
Neither Can Live While The Other Survives
These are two game series that once coexisted harmoniously, yet now it seems that there isn’t room in Nintendo’s portfolio for two exclusive turn-based tactic RPG series developed by Intelligent Systems. On paper, this actually makes sense. Looking at only the moment-to-moment gameplay, Advance Wars and Fire Emblem offer very similar experiences, perhaps even detrimentally so, with sales of one potentially cannibalizing the other. Though, upon taking a close look at these series’ respective styles of gameplay, they may set themselves apart just enough to have the potential to foster a unique set of fans if given the opportunity.
One of the primary points of distinction between series is the representation of units in battle. While they both employ a grid-based battlefield, units in Fire Emblem represent an individual fighter, to whom the player has grown close throughout the game, while units in Advance Wars represent nameless soldiers wielding guns or operating tanks, who can be replaced during battles and in between missions. This personal connection to fighters and ability to foster relationships is one of the primary reasons for Fire Emblem’s success over Advance Wars according to series producer Hitoshi Yamagami. While this lack of a personal connection to soldiers could be viewed as a weakness of the Wars series, it could also be interpreted as simply a different approach to tactical gameplay.
In Advance Wars, the focus is on the battle at hand, rather than on the safety of the player’s soldiers. This creates an entirely different approach to combat, with the player being much more likely to sacrifice units for the sake of victory and do whatever is tactically smart with little concern to long-term consequences, as all units are replenished between battles. Advance Wars is not completely devoid of personal connection, however, as each army is led by a unique Commanding Officer, with whom the player quickly becomes very familiar.
Space In The Ecosystem
With the gameplay differences highlighted, it’s time to address the big question — is there room for Advance Wars in a gaming ecosystem dominated by Fire Emblem? The answer is yes and the time is now. Widespread interest in turn-based tactical RPGs has been increasing, due to the recent success of series like Fire Emblem and XCOM. The Wars series sets itself apart enough to stand out in this genre and attract a new group of unique fans.
If the anticipation and positive critical reception for the Advance Wars-esque indie game Wargroove is any indication, public interest in a Wars comeback is at an all-time high. The perfect amount of time has passed for nostalgic gamers to rediscover their love for the franchise and for first-time players to jump in, having been initiated into tactical RPGs by the likes of Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem Awakening proved that a soft reboot is more than enough to revitalize a stagnant, niche series into an internationally recognized gaming franchise, so why not attempt this formula with Wars? Hot off the heels of Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ successful launch, a theoretical Switch Wars has the potential to be huge. Not much in terms of Wars gameplay begs for revitalization, and an added emphasis on story, focusing on the Commanding Officers, in addition to a modernization of graphics and controls, is all that a Wars reboot needs to take the world by storm.
Switch Wars is inevitable, whether it comes in the next year or ten years is anyone’s guess. The recent stream of Fire Emblem games has been great for fans of the series, but fatigue is a very real possibility. A theoretical Switch Wars not only helps avoid an over-reliance on a single series, but gives a different subset of gamers an opportunity to rediscover an old favorite and opens the door to a new potential fanbase. For some players to whom Fire Emblem does not resonate, an Advance Wars reboot could be just what is needed to bring them into the wonderful world of tactical RPGs. After all, more options is always better.
Intelligent Systems is one of the most skilled video game development teams in the world, especially when it comes to tactical RPGs. Recommitment to the Wars series would mean a whole lot more great games on the Nintendo Switch, which I will always welcome.
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